Science Fiction

The day the Earth warmed up

by Guy Crittenden

Special to The Globe and Mail, Toronto

A funny thing happened on the way to the international global warming conference: The Earth failed to heat up.

You heard correctly. Over the past decade, the Earth's average temperature has increased by zero. Nothing. Nada. In fact, there's evidence that it's actually cooled a bit.

But you wouldn't know that from much of the confusing media coverage of climate change. The debate about what effect the burning of fossil fuels may or may not be having on the atmosphere has become increasingly polarized with the approach of next week's summit in Kyoto, Japan of the (take a deep breath) Parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change. The Party delegates are not meeting to chew over the science; they already agreed in Rio de Janiero in 1992, and in Berlin in 1994 to stabilize the release of heat-trapping "greenhouse gases" like carbon dioxide and methane at 1990 levels to protect us from the supposed danger we'll soon fry in a planetary convection oven. Rather, they are meeting to negotiate a legally-binding deadline, likely extending the original voluntary one of year 2000 by about ten years.

The Europeans (for whom this is very much a trade issue because of their more diversified energy economies) are pushing hardest. U.S. President Bill Clinton supports the targets, but his senate voted 95-0 against signing any agreement in Kyoto that doesn't include the developing nations, who will account for the greatest increase in emissions in the years to come. Canadian Prime Minister Jean Chretien apparently wants to outdo the Americans and, at a recent meeting, the federal and provincial environment ministers agreed to endorse the U.N. stabilization plan and revised deadline. Only Quebec objected, saying the measures don't go far enough.

Yet, Canada is behind the eight-ball. Despite voluntary industry initiatives, Natural Resources Canada projects emissions will be 8.2 per cent higher in the year 2000 than in 1990 and 36 per cent higher by 2020. Reversing the trend will be costly. Emission limits, trade sanctions, and special taxes could profoundly impact Canada's resource-dependent economy, especially the steel and aluminum industries, energy production, transportation, livestock, and agriculture. To appease Alberta, Mr. Chretien recently ruled out a well-head carbon tax, but other taxes could force retail fuel prices to soar.

This is serious stuff.

A recent survey of economic reports from the Conference Board of Canada predicts the compliance measures needed to return emissions to 1990 levels will reduce Canada's annual economic growth by $5.4-billion to $30-billion by the year 2010. An economic simulation prepared for Environment Canada by DRI/McGraw Hill suggests stabilization of emissions would require a phased-in 50 per cent hike in energy prices. As a result, the economy between now and 2012 could underperform to the tune of $150-billion, with living standards lowered by higher prices and interests rates, plus a weak Canadian dollar.

Though they will be asked to accept such sacrifices, it's difficult for laypeople to determine whether or not the science behind the climate change theory is sound. Environmentalists, some scientists, and politicians argue -- passionately -- that the phenomenon is real. Oil companies, certain scientists, and other politicians counter -- just as passionately -- that it's all a bunch of hooey.

Who's right?

The answer, of course, lies in the evidence. Approaching the issue with an open mind, one quickly finds the positions of environmental activists and industry lobby groups appear equally subjective and self-serving. Ultimately, one has to turn to the science for objectivity. Unfortunately, in this environmental detective story the evidence appears to have been tampered with, the jury rigged. Attempts have been made by politicians, U.N. bureaucrats, and even scientists to personally discredit skeptical climatologists (aren't all scientists supposed to be skeptical?) for challenging the conventional wisdom.

We all learned in science class that hypotheses are supposed to be tested against observation. But in the global warming debate, it appears this simple axiom does not apply. Climate change has become an article of faith.

The U.N. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change forecasts a rise of 0.8 and 3.5 degrees Celsius if something doesn't halt the doubling of CO2 expected in the next century. (This is down from earlier estimates of 1.5 to 4.5 degrees). By now, we're all familiar with the presumed Doomsday that will follow if this happens. In a speech this month, Mr. Chretien compared the oil companies to the tobacco giants in their denial of their products' harmful effects, then reminded his audience that, "If we do not take action, climate change will create droughts, floods, and other disasters around the world. It will create unprecedented tides of refugees." He didn't belabor the other alleged consequences, which include: violent storms, tornadoes, forest fires, crop failures, rising sea levels, and plagues spread by mosquitoes that will migrate into formerly-frigid regions.

The global warming theory originated in the writings of 19th-century French mathematician and scientist Jean Fourier and it was given modern credence in 1988 when NASA climatologist Jim Hansen testified before Congress that the summer drought that year was attributable in part to global warming. A number of groups soon discovered they could profit from the bad news. Environmental organizations like Greenpeace have found the apocalyptic scenario is the best fundraising tool since baby seals. Greenpeace has organized expeditions at both ends of the Earth to report on everything from melting ice caps in Antarctica to thawing permafrost in the Mackenzie River Basin. The Suzuki Foundation's Climate Change Campaign has run splashy ads calling global warming "the most urgent slow-motion catastrophe facing mankind." The mosquito story was given special emphasis in the ads, as was the opportunity to make donations. (The mosquito theory was recently discredited in an article in the November 7 issue of the journal, Science.)

Government scientists have cashed in, too. The U.S. government doles out more than $2 billion each year for them to study the problem. In Canada, government departments and universities have benefited from an $85-million Global Warming Strategy fund established in 1992 under the Federal Green Plan, among other revenues. This doesn't mean their agenda is malfeasance; only that, with other funding spigots turned off, scientists in the civil service have a vested interest in research that remains "inconclusive" so as to continue to attract funding.

For many politicians, the scientific case is closed. On July 26, U.S. President Clinton opened a White House conference on the subject with the announcement that, "The overwhelming balance of evidence and scientific opinion is that it is no longer a theory but now a fact that global warming is real." He also cited the supposed consensus of 2,500 scientists in an oft-cited report of the U.N.'s intergovernmental panel. Vice President Al Gore seems to attribute every extreme weather event to global climate change. On one occasion, Interior Secretary Bruce Babbit even stated that skeptics of the Clinton Administration's global warming proposals are "un-American in the most basic sense."

With these endorsements, is it any wonder ordinary folk are scared out of their wits and tell pollsters they support strong government action? However, before you start building your own sea wall against a future Water World, there are a few things to consider.

First, the growing "consensus of scientists" mentioned by Mr. Clinton (and just about every uncritical news story) is a complete myth. Climate change is hotly debated among scientists, and the list of skeptics is growing. Leading the charge are four renowned climatologists: Dr. Patrick J. Michaels of the University of Virginia in Charlottesville; Dr. Robert Balling, a climatology professor at Arizona State University; Dr. Richard S. Lindzen, Alfred P. Sloan Professor of Meteorology at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Boston; and, Dr. S. Fred Singer, Distinguished Research Professor at George Mason University and professor emeritus of environmental science at the University of Virginia.

These four horsemen of the non-apocalypse speak regularly at conferences, testify before Congress, and publish papers which use real-world measurements to effectively skewer the computer-driven climate projections of their peers, including those of the U.N. Panel. A few of them receive some funding from fossil fuel companies and are therefore dismissed by environmentalists as industry shills or tools of the U.S. anti-environmental "wise use" movement.

But the discrediting of scientists over their funding instead of their work is hardly credible. Their papers are peer-reviewed and appear in respected journals like Science and Nature. Less than 5 per cent of Dr. Singer's annual budget comes from oil companies (a $5,000 donation from Exxon). In fact, environmental groups themselves receive millions of dollars in corporate donations. Does this mean their message is tainted?

In any case, the evidence (as opposed to the theory) is increasingly supportive of the observations of these modern-day Galileos, once dismissed as a "small and noisy band of skeptics."

In 1995, the U.N intergovernmental panel released a thick report which contains sections where scientists do take pains to state that global warming and climate change are not yet proven. But politicians and environmental groups never quote these sections. Instead, they have seized upon phrase -- that human activities are having a "discernible effect" on the atmosphere -- which appears in the Policymaker's Summary which was written by a small group that included U.N bureaucrats and other non-scientists.

Says Dr. Patrick Michaels, "The 'discernible effect' statement may be politically sensational, but it's scientifically bankrupt." He and others accused the writers of the Policymaker's Summary of spin-doctoring and of deliberately playing down the high degree of scientific uncertainty around the global warming theory. Dr. Fred Singer exposed the "consensus of 2,500 scientists," pointing out that the report had only about 80 authors for its 11 chapters; most of the hundreds of listed "contributors" are simply experts who allowed their studies to be quoted without necessarily supporting the report's conclusions. Says Dr. Frederick Seitz, "In my more than 60 years as a member of the American scientific community, including service as president of both the National Academy of Sciences and the American Physical Society, I have never witnessed a more disturbing corruption of the peer-review process."

At an international meeting in 1995, 100 climatologists became so fed up with the way bureaucrats have distorted their research that they signed the so-called Leipzig Declaration and expressed their anger over the acceptance of unreliable global warming projections generated through computer-based General Circulation Models. Yet the "consensus of scientists" mantra continues.

Climate change skeptics agree that average global temperatures have risen by a modest 0.3 to 0.6 degrees Celsius in the 140 years since records began. But they point out that most of this warming occurred before 1940 and was followed by decades of climate cooling from about 1940 through the 1960s, at a time when greenhouse-gas emissions actually increased. Many climatologists feared the world was heading toward a mini-ice age. Even the U.N. Panel's Chairman Bert Bolin admits that the pre-1940 warming is probably a natural recovery from an earlier natural cooling.

Indeed, of the 96 years of this century, so far 32 show a warming trend and 64 a cooling. The warming has not been evenly distributed. Some parts of the globe have not warmed at all, while others, like Canada's interior and the Antarctic Peninsula, appear to have warmed by one and two degrees respectively.

But the most damning evidence concerns the past decade. Weather satellites have detected no increase at all. On the contrary, they indicate a cooling of 0.13 Celsius since 1979, and the data is independently verified by weather balloon records as well as ground-level instruments calibrated to account for urban "heat island" effects.

Dr. Michaels is unequivocal: "The perfect agreement between the satellite data and the weather balloons has been extremely humiliating for the global warming proponents, especially because the cooling has occurred in the very layer of the atmosphere (1,500 to 9,000 metres) that their models predicted would warm. Even worse for them, the land surface record of the past decade shows a warming of zero."

But the other side is not backing down. Dr. Gordon McBean is Assistant Deputy Minister in the Atmospheric Environmental Service of Environment Canada, and formerly chaired the international World Climate Research Program. Dr. McBean doesn't dispute the accuracy of the satellite data, but feels the approach of the skeptics has led them to draw erroneous conclusions. "It's inappropriate to judge long-term global warming trends from satellite records which only began in about 1979. Observed changes in the complex spatial patterns of the atmosphere are consistent with the theory that human actions are affecting the climate in ways unlikely to be caused by solar or volcanic activity. Our computer models now give a reasonable simulation of the climate since about 1900 and, though the amount varies, they all indicate climate change will occur." Dr. McBean also adds that the models are similar to the ones used for weather forecasting, and have been refined by continuous feedback from that activity.

Dr. Michaels bristles at the suggestion that the satellite data is unreliable.

"Scientists are supposed to look at evidence, not run from it," says Michaels, adding, "When the temperature didn't go up as predicted, the increasingly desperate and shrill apologists for the warming theory changed their mantra to the vague message of climate change." Michaels and the other skeptics point out that there is no evidence at all that the Earth has suffered from an increase in violent weather. Studies of anenometer readings used to gauge hurricanes since the Second World War show a decline in tropical storm strength, not an increase.

It's a touchy issue. Hurricane Andrew was the most expensive U.S. disaster ever, causing $30-billion in damage. But is this because the weather is worse, or because more people inhabit Florida's coastline than decades ago? Atlantic hurricane activity over the warming period between 1970 and 1987 was less than half the activity observed for the cooling period between 1947 and 1969. There's no consensus in the insurance industry that climate change is upon us. According to Mr. Ian Rankin, a Toronto-based environmetal insurance broker, "American and Canadian insurance and reinsurance companies (among the most affected by extreme weather) remain skeptical." Even the U.N. Panel report states: "Over all, there is no evidence that extreme weather events, or climate variability, has increased, in a global sense through the 20th century, although data and analysis are poor and not comprehensive."

Asked about rising sea levels, Dr. Fred Singer replies: "A small rise in sea levels of about 18 centimetres per century has been observed for several centuries, but there is evidence that this derives from the drifting of continental plates and subsequent tectonic changes in the shape of the ocean basin, not the thermal expansion of sea water. In our study of the warming period between 1900 and 1940, we discovered a drop in sea levels. The evidence suggests that global warming, if it occurs, could actually slow sea level rise."

Another troubling question is one that the U.N. intergoernmental panel's 1995 report fully acknowledges: Even if the climate is changing, it's impossible to say to what (if any) extent human beings are influencing what might be natural variation.

Change is inevitable for climate, especially if one takes a long-term view. Ice ages occur roughly every 100,000 years, followed by warm periods lasting ten to twelve thousand years. Even the warm periods experience wild fluctuations. Between 5,000 and 8,000 years ago, the Earth went through long periods which were 2 to 3 degrees Celsius hotter than today. Paleoclimatologists at the University of Maine have discovered from fossils that the climate of the Prairies took a sudden turn for the better about 800 years ago after 1,500 years of dust-bowl conditions. The abrupt change from dry to wet cycles, they say, may be connected to different moon and sun cycles. What is now the arid Sahara desert was once a swampy land populated by hippopotamuses and crocodiles.

Had a fine English wine recently? Doubtful. Yet, records show that England's climate was ideal a few hundred years ago for growing grapes. This was itself a short-lived hot spell in the middle of what climatologists call the Little Ice Age which lasted from the early 1400s to about 1850. This period suggests that cold climates, not warm, spawn the most violent weather. Severe storms in the North Sea in 1421 and 1446 claimed 100,000 lives, while a storm in 1570 claimed over 400,000.

Earth temperatures closely correlate to sunspot and solar flare activity, which occurs in cycles of roughly 11 years within much longer trends. When the number of sunspots was sharply reduced between 1640 and 1720, our planet cooled about 1.1 degrees Celsius and Europe was plunged into a deep freeze. Glaciers and winters lengthened, and English paintings from the time show people skating on the Thames River and celebrating freezings with merry river Frost Fairs. In pioneer days, people walked in winter from Staten Island to Manhattan across a frozen New York harbor.

Experts at the Naval Research Laboratory in Washington say that about 50 per cent of the climate change since 1850 can be attributed to the sun, and average temperatures since the Second World War have closely tracked sunspot cycles. Complicating matters, geophysicists at the University of Hawaii claim that increased undersea seismicity and volcanic activity on the Pacific Ocean floor may be contributing to the appearance of strong El Niño weather events in recent years.

So, what should we do?

The conclusion of Volume 3 of the U.N. Panel report states: "A prudent way to deal with climate change is through a portfolio of actions aimed at mitigation, adaptation and improvement of knowledge. The appropriate portfolio will differ for each country. The challenge is not to find the best policy today for the next 100 years, but to select a prudent strategy and to adjust it over time in light of new information."

That certainly sounds reasonable. Given all the evidence which contradicts the theory that the Earth is warming, that the climate is changing, and that mankind is the cause, perhaps the Canadian delegation in Kyoto should argue that the global-warming hypothesis needs to be revised. A prudent strategy for Canada would be to monitor the situation, but it appears that any decision to limit greenhouse-gas emissions would appear to be premature and should be shelved.

Guy Crittenden is editor-in-chief of the trade publications Hazardous Materials Management magazine and Solid Waste & Recycling magazine in Markham, Ontario.